Social media is currently ablaze with outrage over the illegal killing of Cecil the lion by American dentist Walter Palmer and his Zimbabwean hunting guide, Theo Bronkhorst. To learn more about the facts surrounding the lion’s death, and to learn about the various methods in which people all over the world have expressed their outrage, you need only Google it. There have also been a number of responses on social media expressing disapproval of the outrage, arguing that the issue has been blown out of proportion when there are more important things to be outraged over.
Two of the common themes I’ve seen are 1) that people are outraged over the death of one African lion while countless human African children are dying of starvation, and 2) that people of African descent are dying all over America in incidents of police brutality, and that this has drawn attention away from blacklivesmatter. I also recently ran across an article stating that several elephants have been poached in the time that everyone has been talking about Cecil, but this isn’t getting the same attention.
The critics argue that, while it’s possible to care about multiple equally important issues at the same time, this particular issue isn’t of equal importance, and that by treating it with the same gravity we are essentially trivializing these other, more important issues.
In some contexts, I might agree. But, as it happens, the killing of Cecil the lion is about more than just one animal dying. It’s actually a really big deal.
This is an issue of international sovereignty, and of respect for international laws and the laws of foreign nations. There’s already a global stereotype of Americans as being arrogant, disrespectful of other countries and thinking they have the right to do whatever they want. And the Cecil incident has completely reinforced that stereotype. An American walks into a foreign country – one that is significantly less wealthy and powerful – and uses his wealth and privilege to violate the laws of that nation. And why did he do this? Was it to make a political statement? No. Was it even for economic gain? No. It was for personal entertainment.
Throughout modern history wealthy, Western nations have been exploiting Africa for its labor and natural resources. Wildlife is a natural resource. And here is a wealthy Westerner coming in and just doing whatever he wants without regard for preservation, local law, or posterity. You could equally claim that these safe spaces for wildlife belong to the whole world, and that the future children of the world deserve to still have lions and other free-roaming wildlife in existence, and not to just have to learn about them in books. That’s why these animals are kept in a special, national park where it is illegal to hunt. We are preserving these wonderful things for future generations.
And Walter Palmer, and others like him, are perfectly happy to whittle away at that legacy without regard for anyone else. Why? Because they wanna! It would be one thing if he had gotten lost in the park and was starving and needed to kill for food, or if the lion was about to attack. But this was completely unnecessary, and that means it was completely selfish. We must display outrage in order to prevent this from happening again and again until there are no more lions left.
This of course ties into the matter of income inequality along with the fact that the Earth is dying at human hands. America, at least, is experiencing the decline of its middle class. And there is a harsh disparity developing between the haves and the have-nots. The have-nots struggle just to make ends meet, while the haves go around doing essentially whatever they want without regard for the impact their actions have on the have-nots. Rich kids get to go to fancy rehab centers when they kill people with their drunk driving, while poor kids go to jail. Rich people get to control the political discourse, while poor people’s votes are rendered less and less meaningful through gerrymandering by the politicians the rich have installed.
Palmer’s disregard for the law and for the fact that he’s whittling away at a resource that’s supposed to be there for everyone smacks of rich entitlement. This is a guy who is sufficiently well-off to spend tens of thousands of dollars to go kill animals in someone else’s country for fun. And then return to the US where he assumed there wouldn’t be any consequences. It’s heartening that the collective of regular people, who don’t have $55,000 to go spend on pleasure killing, have mustered enough power to hold the dude responsible. Maybe it takes an entire country of have-nots to hold a single have accountable, and they do it through shaming and outrage.
More than that, the Earth is dying, and anyone who denies that is either a rich person, who isn’t going to have to bear the same consequences as the rest of us, or an idiot who has been manipulated by rich people. The rich won’t suffer the way that the poor will from climate change, from mass extinction, from rising water levels. But the poor will. This disparity is particularly stark when you get into the business of comparing rich and poor nations (like, oh, the US and Zimbabwe, for instance?) but it’s also true for wealthy and poor individuals within the same country. The wealthy, who have air conditioned homes, aren’t the ones dying in the ever-more-intense heat waves the world has been seeing of late. And all it takes is reviewing the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina to know how the wealthy in America will fare versus how poor Americans will fare when flooding and more extreme weather become the norm. The wealthy have the resources to get out of town before a national disaster, and to rebuild. The poor? Not so much. But who has caused and benefited the most from the activities that promote global warming and climate change? Corporations, and their wealthy CEOs and investors. They have no incentive to stop, except whatever inklings of compassion they can muster for the rest of us.
Which brings us back to Palmer and the lion. No compassion there for animals – what about for fellow humans? At an age where living at one with nature is no longer a choice, and everyone is talking about going green, reducing their meat intake, and conservation – at least, everyone with a social conscience – this guy decides to take his tens of thousands and go shoot a lion in a space that is set aside for ecological preservation. Nice. Yes, it’s only one lion. So maybe it’s just symbolic. But it’s a symbol of something pretty awful – wealthy people continuing to kill the Earth and leave the rest of us to suffer the consequences of their actions. Palmer ‘s privileged status as a wealthy, white, American male makes him think that he’s entitled him to bend the rules.
And one more point to address the argument that caring about this animal somehow trivializes human rights causes If you’re an animal rights person, which I am, you believe on a fundamental religious or ethical level that animal lives are of equal value to human lives. Not everyone believes this, but for those of us who do, it’s not something we take lightly. To us, the murder of an animal – particularly of a complex mammal capable of forming family ties and, to our knowledge, at least some degree of higher emotion – is as upsetting as the murder of a human being. It is an extension of the very same theory of natural rights that makes all human lives matter. It goes hand in hand with a belief in compassion and respect for all living things. For me, personally, this is also deeply spiritual just as much as it is a matter of deeply held political philosophy.
Now, a lot of animal rights activists have, perhaps correctly, pointed out that the outrage over Cecil is hypocritical when Americans alone needlessly and unceremoniously slaughter hundreds of billions of farm animals every year for food. I appreciate their point. We humans have this tendency to only care about cute, cuddly, fun animals and disregard the ugly animals, or the animals that we prefer to categorize as dinner. The recent outrage over a certain Chinese dog meat festival strikes me as a perfect, and utterly hypocritical, example.
But there’s a difference here. Cecil wasn’t killed for food. Now, a lot of animal rights activists don’t care about that – plants can provide more than enough protein and iron for a human diet – and think of the food justification as a straw man. But I would argue that there’s still a difference between killing for food in the presence of other nutrient sources and killing for entertainment. There’s also the fact that lions are a naturally occuring, wild species while our livestock is domesticated and bred into massive populations by human beings. Sure, that doesn’t justify killing – livestock still suffer. But in terms of upsetting the ecological order, the domestic animals shouldn’t exist in the first place. When you needlessly kill a wild animal, you’re messing with nature itself.
But more than anything, lions are considered a vulnerable species. According to the Wikipedia page on lions,
“Most lions now live in eastern and southern Africa, and their numbers there are rapidly decreasing, with an estimated 30–50% decline per 20 years in the late half of the 20th century. Estimates of the African lion population range between 16,500 and 47,000 living in the wild in 2002–2004, down from early 1990s estimates that ranged as high as 100,000 and perhaps 400,000 in 1950. Primary causes of the decline include disease and human interference”
Killing any animal is upsetting, but killing a member of a species that’s in trouble is even worse, particularly given the fact that killing the male leader of a pride creates a power vacuum, endangers his cubs, and leads to violence among his peers, leading to the deaths of more lions. (The silver lining is that Cecil’s brother is protecting his cubs and they might end up being OK).
Then there’s the fact that Cecil was killed by a bow and arrow and took 40 hours to die. Not exactly a Humane Slaughter Act approved method.
The concept of “natural rights” has been an evolving one throughout history, one that has grown and expanded over time. Up until only a few hundred years ago, natural rights wasn’t even really a thing. Rights were reserved for privileged members of a tribe. In ancient Rome, for citizens, but not for slaves and barbarians. In other societies rights were something that came with tribal membership. Us, vs. them. They’re subhuman, so they don’t have rights. Only we do. In America, until the mid 1860s, people of African descent weren’t conceived of having the very natural rights that we had written into our founding documents. Today, we’re still fighting for the full recognition of the natural rights of women, people of color and LGBT individuals. Many other countries are even further behind than we are.
It is a natural extension of this movement that, eventually, the concept of natural rights will be extended to animals. Courts in very limited circumstances in a few different western nations have already begun recognizing special categories of super-advanced primates with some limited natural rights, i.e., the rights of chimps raised in sanctuaries with close human interaction to not be experimented on and killed and dissected. The FBI recently recategorized animal cruelty crimes to make it easier to collect data on how much of a problem animal abuse and animal torture really is. Even if that only applies to wild animals and companion animals, and doesn’t consider the billions of farm animals who suffer in this country every year, it’s a step forward.
So to say that outrage over Cecil’s death is somehow trivializing the deaths of the many, many human beings who die needlessly at the hands of others on this planet is misguided. This outrage is an extension of our concept of natural rights, a demonstration of the enhanced compassion the people of the 21st century experience toward life – all life. It is progressive, and idealistic, and it goes hand in hand with the recognition that all lives matter.